Monday, September 16, 2019

Death of a Bow Maker

I received the news today that my friend and colleague, Steve Haas, has died.

Steve was a bow maker and a restorer. He called me a week before he went in for heart surgery this summer. He was optimistic. He anticipated having more energy when the operation was over. I offered to help with any last minute work that showed up on his bench, or to take a turn at walking his dog if needed. He said he had everything covered. He promised to call me when he was home again, and said he would make an effort to find time to go to lunch. Our last lunch was a summer ago not far from his new shop.

But then Steve never did call me back about that lunch. I left messages on his voicemail to check in. I heard word from other musicians who came through my shop that the surgery had gone badly. There were complications and he was in the ICU. Last week someone told me he was on life support. The news this morning was not unexpected, but is still a shock. To know for certain someone in your life is truly gone is always a shock.

I met Steve in the mid-90s when I moved to Milwaukee to learn violin making. My school had summers off, and my teacher recommended I use that time to learn to rehair bows. It was a valuable skill that would be welcome in any violin shop, and he said the person I should learn from was Steve Haas at Classical Strings. That's where the symphony level players took their instruments.

There was no job, though, at Classical Strings. I called Steve and introduced myself, and told him I wanted him to teach me how to rehair bows. He didn't think he could help me with that, but agreed to meet me for lunch. We went to his favorite Mexican place. I was in my late-twenties and enthusiastic, and by the end of the meeting I had convinced him to let me join his shop where he would teach me what he knew.

Steve looked amused and a little dazed as we returned to Classical Strings. He told me point blank he wasn't sure why he was giving me a job, since it didn't make sense to train his future competition. But I was persuasive. Teaching me to rehair bows would be beneficial to us both, I promised, so he took me on, mostly to answer the phone and deal with customers, which would help keep him on the bench. (The hardest part of running your own shop, and also doing the bench work, is battling interruptions.)

I won't lie; working for Steve was hard. He was demanding. He was quirky. He was typical of many people in my trade in his attention to detail and in creating a small world of exacting habits.

The day he made me learn to use his vernier caliper, I cried, because he wanted me to do it in a way that made sense to him, not in a way that helped me. It took hours. I wasn't allowed to take notes, I wasn't allowed to ask certain questions, I was simply supposed to be able to do it the way he did it. The woman who did restoration work at the next bench consoled me when Steve left the room, and said that happened to everyone. The crazy part of that whole exercise was that I had my own dial caliper that I could read just fine. I never needed his, ever, so I don't know what the lesson was truly about. However, most of the lessons I learned were invaluable. It was worth the occasional bout of tears to have access to that knowledge.

The most infuriating quote in Steve's shop was, "There's the right way, the wrong way, and Steve's way." Which meant you could be right and still be wrong. So, no, not an easy place to work, and I was on the payroll for a decade.

But there were other quotes that stay with me. Such as: "One slip with your tool and you've changed history." Steve's respect for the instruments and bows that came through his shop was genuine. He knew what he was doing. His work was excellent. The standard he set was intimidatingly high. It was maybe a year of working on bows in his shop that he stopped feeling the need to inspect everything I did and trusted me to simply do the job.

And training me to rehair bows did turn out to work in his favor, because at some point he entered a battle with cancer during which his hands became unreliable. The chemo took a toll, and for a long stretch I was doing all of the bow work that came through the shop. I was glad to be able to help. I was proud that my work was at a level that it could pass for his. Steve seldom doled out compliments, but there was a moment in the middle of those difficult couple of years that he told me with great seriousness I was the best bow rehairer in town. On days when I am frustrated with my own work, I cling to that statement to get me through.

When I graduated from violin making school, Steve took me on closer to full-time and year round. I moved into repair work, which is a different skill from building. Under his careful eye I learned full setup, how to dress boards, straighten bridges, glue seams, adjust soundposts, fix cracks, bush a pegbox, raise a nut, find a buzz, and to clean violins properly. Everything I know about repair I learned from Steve.

Steve told me once that one of his favorite stories was how at my first violin making competition I was the only person in the line of people receiving comments from a judge that did not get a lecture about the proper shape of a fingerboard. The judge sighted up the neck of my instrument and said appreciatively, "You dress a lot of boards." I told him that was very true. And every one of them had to be up to Steve's standard, because you could not get away with anything less at Classical Strings. Steve told me he thought about that often, and how it always made him smile. That may have been the first time he gave any real thought to how what he knew was being passed on into the world beyond what his own hands accomplished.

Steve made beautiful bows. I've never made a bow, but he said if we ever found the time he would show me what to do. We never found that time. I told him a couple of years ago that if he had another of his bows available for sale I would like one. But he hadn't made bows in ages, and they didn't cross his bench very often. I still wish I had one of his bows.

Steve had a variety of struggles, and we didn't agree on certain things, but I admired that he was always trying to grow. For someone whose inclination was often to be rigid, he could recognize when he was wrong and say so. He listened to me instead of just arguing, and told me later if I'd changed his mind on topics I found important.

He was a good musician, too, although I don't know if he thought of himself that way in comparison to the professionals that came through his shop. He played guitar, and there was an ease to what he did that I don't have. Whatever instrument Steve pulled into his lap at the shop ended up playing the opening bars of "Smoke on the Water."

I am lucky to be able to say that I went from being Steve's employee to his colleague and his friend. When I opened my own shop in 2008 he was nothing but supportive. The idea of competition in this field is negligible. It's good to share the work. Our interests and skills complemented each other across town, where I like to deal with people and a rental program and sales and quick service, and Steve liked to work alone doing intricate projects over a long period of time. We sent clients to each other as seemed appropriate. And whenever I had a question or a problem or needed someone to brainstorm with about shop issues, Steve was always at the other end of the phone. I can't believe that resource and all he knew is lost to us now.

He was always looking forward, but actively appreciated whatever stage of life he was in. He only ever had positive things to say about his kids. He loved his work. His new shop was charming, and I think he recently had gotten around to unpacking the final box.

Steve was in a good place when he called me this summer. He insisted he wasn't scared. He'd had many health problems over the years, but he had faith that this surgery would keep his life going in the positive trajectory it was moving. He was at peace with himself.

He will be missed.




[ADDENDUM Posted on Facebook the next day:

I want to say a little more about Steve Haas now that I've had a bit of time to process his passing. The post I wrote on my blog yesterday was stream of consciousness in what short amount of time I had before heading to work. It's since been edited a little and amended. But there is more to say.

Steve was a complicated character, but an example to me of what you can do when you rise above. He did not come from an easy background. He was met with adversity at several turns. But he didn't whine about things, or complain unnecessarily. He always looked to the positive, even when it was something small. I remember when he was ill with chemo how he would talk about it honestly, but then focus instead on whatever movies he'd watched to distract him from the nausea. He often found the silver lining, and it troubled him when he couldn't.

Most people never saw behind the scenes of how their instruments were tended in his shop. They would have been pleased to know the kind of care he took, and ensured the rest of us did, too.

I wish Steve had made himself get out more, especially to play music with other people. He had a lot to share, but isolated himself a bit much. Which I get. The kind of work we do is better done in solitary much of the time, and that instinct bleeds over into other things. But he liked when I made the effort to visit him in his shop and would show me what he was working on. He liked and admired so many people in our community, probably more than they know.

Steve was generous to me on many levels, including finding ways to keep work on my bench even as my husband got deployed and I suddenly had to juggle everything with small children. He'd figure out which projects I could do on my bench at home at night, and never made it seem like a burden that my hours were suddenly so scarce.

And Steve could not have been more supportive of my opening my own shop. He even had the crazy idea of working for me at one point when he was in transition and wanted to let go of certain responsibilities that are part of running a small business. He thought I looked like a nice boss. I told him it made more sense for him to maintain his own shop identity and I would just keep sending him restoration and bow work as it came up, and he could keep sending me renters. Teaming up officially would have been a disaster, but I was incredibly flattered that he wanted me to consider it at all. Could anyone expect a higher compliment from a mentor?

I have Steve's number on the wall by my bench because he was always the first person I'd call when I had a shop question. He usually had an answer. I'm not sure what to do in this new world today where he won't be at the other end of the line.]

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for posting this sweet and heartfelt tribute to Steve. It is always especially sad when a member of our music family passes. Greetings from lovely Candes St Martin where I will be until mid-January. Bernard Zinck

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